Tag: federal grants

‘Even Though Earmarks Are Gone, There Are Still Billions of Dollars Available’

That quote from a local government official in California sums up why banning earmarks won’t do much to rein in the size and scope of the federal government. The quote comes from a McClatchy Newspapers article on lobbying expeditions to Washington undertaken by local government officials who want federal taxpayers to pick up the tab for projects in their backyards.

From the article:

[Fresno County supervisor Henry] Perea has joined 19 other Fresno County business, academic and political leaders in this week’s three-and-a-half day lobbying venture on behalf of transportation and other projects. Separately, a four-member delegation from the Merced County city of Livingston also is on the prowl.

Billed under the unifying ‘One Voice’ banner, the Fresno County wish list ranges from a transportation bill that might help improve State Route 99 to assistance with controlling air pollution and streamlining environmental reviews for roadwork…

Underscoring the potential regional competition, four representatives from Livingston are separately making the rounds this week in their own search for federal assistance.

‘We want to hit up some congressmen,’ Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza said Monday.

Federal grants, too, are part of the Livingston delegation’s agenda, with city officials targeting a variety of potential opportunities, including funding, to help nurture a downtown cultural arts district.

If local officials in Livingston want funds for a cultural arts district, then they should be traveling around Livingston “hitting up” local taxpayers to pay for it. But with “billions of dollars” available in Washington, why would Livingston officials take the politically unpleasant route of asking their voters to foot the bill? Of course, federal policymakers are typically only too happy to oblige because they’ll get to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony and brag about their ability to bring home the bacon. Meanwhile, the federal taxpayer continues to get soaked, the government’s debt mounts, and the Beltway Neros fiddle.

Bring home the bacon? But isn’t there an earmark ban? There is, but the programs that policymakers were earmarking money from still exist. That means that the federal dollars continue to flow; the only thing that changed is the course of the river. An earmark ban is good, but as I’ve repeatedly discussed, earmarks are only a symptom of the problem.

So let me make a suggestion to reporters: the next time you’re interviewing a federal policymaker who supports keeping the ban on earmarks, ask them if their staffers are helping the folks back home obtain federal grants, loans, etc. When they respond in the affirmative but argue that they’re merely making sure that their constituents receive their “fair share” of the loot, ask them how the federal government is supposed to get its finances in order if policymakers won’t stop putting parochial concerns ahead of the national interest. You might have to keep pressing, but eventually the hypocrisy will expose itself.

See this Cato essay for more on federal subsidies to state and local government.

Did Canada Steal Our Tenth Amendment?

Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government was assigned specific limited powers, and most government functions were left to the states. To ensure that people understood the limits on federal power, the Framers added the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Those delegated powers are “few and defined,” noted James Madison.

But the Tenth Amendment has disappeared. No one has seen it in recent decades. But I’ve found some statistics that make me very suspicious that the Canadians stole the Tenth. Look at the pie charts below. The top pie shows that 71 percent of total government spending in the United States is federal, while 29 percent is state/local. (See BEA tables 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 for 2010 data).

Back when we still had the Tenth, that ratio was the other way around—like how the bottom chart looks for Canada today. In Canada, federal spending accounts for just 38 percent of total government spending, while provincial/local spending accounts for 62 percent. (See Canada Yearbook for 2010/11 data.)

Actually, the real culprit for the missing Tenth is not the Canadians, but the U.S. Congress. In recent decades, Congress has undertaken many activities that were traditionally reserved to state and local governments. A primary method has been through “grants-in-aid.” These are federal subsidies combined with regulatory controls that micromanage state and local affairs. In United States, federal grants are about 4.1 percent of GDP (in fiscal 2011), while in Canada they are about 3.3 percent of GDP.

Even more striking: while we’ve got a complex mess of more than 1,000 state grant programs, Canada seems to have just a handful, and they are simple block grants. As I understand it, Canada’s federal grants to lower governments mainly just include:

  • A health care block grant
  • A social services block grant
  • An “equalization” block grant to help the poor provinces.

There is a smattering of other aid, but that’s just about it. There are no federal subsidies for K-12 education in Canada, for example. There are a few large block grants and not much else.

On October 27, I’m on an Urban/Brookings panel looking at “What Can the United States Learn from Canada.” Perhaps we can learn how to get our decentralized federation back. While we’re at it, we could get some tips on how to cut government spending, as the Canadians did in the 1990s.

Mitch Daniels and the Federal Money Grab

For much of the nation’s history, policymakers recognized that the federal government’s powers were “few and defined,” as James Madison noted. Issues like education and community development were largely left to the states. Unfortunately, the separation of responsibilities between the federal government and states has been eroded to the point that federal funds now account for approximately a third of total state spending. A consequence is that federal aid to the states has fostered bigger government at all levels.

State policymakers are addicted to federal money. The appeal is obvious: they get to take credit for all the wonderful things they do with money that they didn’t have to tax out of their state’s voters. Thus, it has been interesting to observe Republican governors who willfully fed at the federal trough now pontificate on the dangers of Washington’s spending addiction as potential or declared candidates for president.

Although he ultimately decided against running for president, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has carefully crafted a public image as a voice of reason when it comes to addressing the federal government’s budget problems. When he was flirting with a run for president, Daniels received fawning coverage from various observers for labeling the federal government’s debt the “new red menace.”

One problem with this image is the fact that Gov. Daniels has been a “just another politician” when it comes to grabbing federal dollars. Indeed, Daniels signed an executive order on his first day in office creating a state agency devoted to increasing Indiana’s take from the federal honey pot. As an official with the Indiana state Office of Management and Budget, I can attest that it was the Daniels administration’s policy to find ways to use federal dollars instead of state dollars where possible.

Last week, a local Indianapolis television channel ran an investigation of the state’s Office of Federal Grants and Procurement. Although the agency has cost Indiana taxpayers almost a half-million dollars, the investigation team couldn’t figure out what it has been doing with the money. State legislators that were interviewed didn’t know much about the agency even though they continue to fund it. I admit that I can’t remember dealing with it (other than to be completely disgusted by its existence).

Daniels declined to be interviewed for the story, and instead sent out his deputy chief of staff, Cris Johnston, to take the heat. Johnston’s best defense was that Indiana has improved its ranking when it comes to bringing in federal taxpayer dollars. I suppose that means Daniels’s red menace isn’t such a menace when the federal spigot’s flow is being directed toward his state’s coffers.

I’ll wrap this up by making a suggestion to the journalists out there covering the presidential candidates with a background in state government: did they eschew federal handouts or did they have their hands out? It’s an important question because the next president is going to be facing an epic fiscal mess and we really can’t afford another politician who talks the talk but didn’t walk the walk.

See this Cato essay for more on the importance of fiscal federalism and why the flow of federal funds to the states needs to be shut off.

The NYT’s Weak Defense of Homeland Security Grants

Last week, the House passed a homeland security appropriations bill slashing funding for grants to states and localities. The New York Times has now noticed and unleashed an indignant editorial:

House Republicans talk tough on terrorism. So we can find no explanation — other than irresponsibility — for their vote to slash financing for eight antiterrorist programs. Unless the Senate repairs the damage, New York City and other high-risk localities will find it far harder to protect mass transit, ports and other potential targets.

The programs received $2.5 billion last year in separate allocations. The House has cut that back to a single block grant of $752 million, an extraordinary two-thirds reduction. The results for high-risk areas would be so damaging — with port and mass transit security financing likely cut by more than half — that the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King of New York, voted against the bill as “an invitation to an attack.”

Only a few months ago, Times editorials accused King of trying to “hype” and “stoke” fear of homegrown Muslim terrorism. It’s sort of touching to see them get behind his fearmongering when the beneficiaries are local firefighters, police, and other local interests.

But the editorial has trouble worse than hypocrisy. For starters, it’s light on facts. Its accounting seems to omit over $320 million in funds for local firefighters that a floor amendment put in the bill. It also fails to mention that the bill eliminates a formula that ensures that homeland security funds are distributed to every state. Because it means that counterterrorism spending is highest per-capita in rural areas where the threat from terrorism is lowest, homeland security watchers have long attacked that minimum funding provision. So while this bill would indeed cut homeland security funds going to New York, it would also mean that New York gets more of the remaining funds.

More importantly, the Times evidently did not try too hard to find an explanation for the cuts once they settled on irresponsibility, given that Republican appropriators readily offered one: the funds are wasteful. Rather than explain why they think the money is well spent (my definition of responsibility), the editorial conflates spending on security with security itself. It says the cuts will be “damaging,” but it cites only damage to the budgets of recipient agencies, not their purpose.

In fact, the threat of terrorism is so low in the United States and the efficacy of the funds in mitigating it so uncertain that the right amount of homeland security spending in most parts of the United States is none. That is especially true now that we are roughly a decade removed from the September 11 attacks, which spawned a massive increase in homeland security grant-making. That splurge was meant to bolster our ability to defend against what has proved a massively inflated threat of catastrophic terrorism; it was not meant to be a permanent subsidy to state and local governments.

New York City is uniquely threatened, but that does not mean that federal taxpayers should foot the bill. The federal government should collect intelligence on terrorists and hunt them down. Local and state officials should use that information to determine the right amount of local security spending. They have to ask whether normal policing funds, school spending, or slightly lower taxes are worth sacrificing for a new camera or chemical clean-up suit. Federal grants, because they are buried in a massive budget and partially deficit-funded, dilute our ability to perceive those tradeoffs. They also heighten fear of terrorism by encouraging state and local interests to overstate their peril to win the grants, as the editorial demonstrates.

It ends by instructing the Senate to “stand up for security over politics” and restore funding to past levels. But these decisions should be made politically. We give power over security policy to politicians — rather than leaving it exclusively to unelected bureaucrats — because these decisions are important. That is a product of design, not an accident. The notion that security is too important for politics is backwards.

Luckily, the attempt to divorce security policy from electoral politics is a pretense. The Times is engaging in politics by asking for funds. They aim to politically punish those that oppose their preferred policies. If the Senate restores most of the grant funds, as it likely will, it will do so for sound political reasons.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Federal Employees and College Costs

For a long time now I’ve been writing about how student aid fuels explosive college costs, while Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven have been highlighting the ever-cushier compensation of federal workers. Well, I’m pleased to have finally discovered a direct linkage between these topics: A new U.S. Office of Personnel  Management report on student loan repayment programs for federal workers.

According to the report, in calendar year 2009 “36 Federal agencies provided 8,454 employees with a total of more than $61.8 million in student loan repayment benefits.”

Now, 8,454 employees is a small chunk of the entire, roughly 2-million-person federal workforce. Still, $61.8 million isn’t anything to sniff at, and loan forgiveness is one more perk that needs to be considered when thinking of federal worker compensation. And then there’s the trajectory of forgiveness: According to the report, spending on student-loan forgiveness by federal agencies in 2009 was “more than 19 times” bigger than it was in 2002. Were things to continue at that rate, in 2017 the cost would be almost $1.2 billion, and then you’d almost be talking real money!

The important point from a student-aid perspective is to emphasize something that must never be forgotten: While many analyses of student aid will only count grants – because they don’t ever have to be paid back – as “aid,” the reality is that that hugely under counts the true cost of federal aid to taxpayers. In addition to grants, taxpayers fund all federal student loans (and eat them when they aren’t repaid), help finance work-study, and pay for federal expenses that people taking federal education tax credits don’t pay for. So when you look just at federal grants, the bill for taxpayers in the 2008-09 school year was about $24.8 billion (see table 1). Add in loans, credits, and work-study, however, and the bill suddenly balloons to nearly $116.8 billion.

“But wait,” will say the only-grants-are-aid crowd, “isn’t a lot of that $116.8 billion loan money that will be paid back?” Yup – it’s just that at least $61.8 million of that repayment is coming, once again, from beleaguered federal taxpayers. And that, to be sure, is just the tip of the federal loan-forgiveness iceberg.

The Stimulating Story of Dr. Robert Felner

In 2003, after a stint heading up the school of education at the University of Rhode Island, Dr. Robert Felner took the same job at the University of Louisville. Two years later, he secured an earmarked  federal government grant for $694,000 from the Dept. of Education, ostensibly for a vast study of Kentucky public school performance. According to federal investigators, the money ended up in Dr. Felner’s pockets instead. In fact, investigators allege that Felner and a partner in crime managed to defraud taxpayers of $2.3 million by promising to deliver educational assessment services that never materialized.

The checks and balances you might expect to have stopped this from happening were seldom checked and never balanced. And that’s what’s so stimulating about this story: Felner allegedly duped everyone involved for nearly 3 years – at a time when the $100 billion federal education stimulus package wasn’t yet a twinkle in president Obama’s eye.

Given that officials couldn’t stay on top of millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money under normal circumstances, it’s unsettling to think what is going on right now as the system is suddenly flooded with billions of new dollars.